Looking for Bomma

James Clifford

  • In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh
    Granta, 400 pp, £6.99, February 1994, ISBN 0 14 014017 4

In his novel, The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh writes of an Indian family whose members cross and recross two geopolitical borders. One border joins and divides Calcutta and London, the other Calcutta and Dhaka. Toward the end of the book the narrator’s failing grandmother prepares for a return visit to the city she left, years before, when India was partitioned: Dhaka, East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. It is only a short flight from Calcutta. The old woman asks whether she will see the border from the plane. Her son tells her that it won’t look like a map, with different colours on either side of a dark line. ‘But surely,’ the old woman persists, ‘there’s something – trenches perhaps, or soldiers, or guns pointing at each other, or even just barren strips of land. Don’t they call it no man’s land?’ Her son laughs: ‘No you won’t be able to see anything except clouds and perhaps, if you’re lucky, some green fields.’ She remains puzzled:

But if there aren’t any trenches or anything, how are people to know? I mean, where’s the difference then? And if there’s no difference, both sides will be the same; it’ll be just like it used to be before, when we used to catch a train in Dhaka and get off in Calcutta the next day without any body stopping us. What was it all for then – Partition and all the killing and everything – if there isn’t something in between?

A moral puzzlement over borders informs all of Ghosh’s portrayals of entangled worlds: intricate novels, critical travel writing, and now In an Antique Land – part travel memoir, part archival detective story, and part experiment in multi-locale ethnography. Its title is drawn ironically from Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, although the Egyptian past unearthed by Ghosh differs sharply from the sublime antiquities of European Romanticism. In an Antique Land reaches back to a 12th-century cosmopolitan world linking Arabs, Jews and South Asians, a world not yet structured by five hundred years of Western economic and cultural expansion. Ghosh recovers, for use now, a submerged tradition of contacts between South Asia and the Middle East. And this past situates, in a sense authorises, his own late 20th-century ethnography: a series of disturbing encounters with worldly peasants in the Nile Delta. Ghosh’s poignant, tragic, sometimes hilarious account connects the time of the Crusaders and Ibn Battuta with current labour migrations and the Gulf War. In the face of brutal geopolitical divisions it rescues a vision of human crossings in the borderlands, shards for a prehistory of post-colonialism.

As a graduate student in social anthropology at Oxford in 1978, Ghosh wrestled with the perennial question of where to do fieldwork. An Indian, contemplating research in another Third World country, he found the traditional reasons for selecting a field site – personal attraction, adventure, relevance to a theoretical problem, an adviser’s connections – no longer sufficient. Indeed, he no longer accepted the right of researchers based in metropolitan centres to live and study virtually anywhere. In the wake of anti-colonial movements, this access to the world’s cultures, long claimed in the name of disinterested scholarship, seemed a form of Western privilege. In fact, the freedom of scientific fieldworkers – anthropological, archaeological, natural scientific – had always been guaranteed by mundane relations of power. Science seldom travelled independently, but followed established routes, most often those of trade and flag. Whatever exceptions one might find to this general pattern, the path from Oxford to the ‘Middle East’ was particularly well-mapped in imperial terms. Were any other routes available to a Third World anthropologist passing through Britain?

Ghosh came across a collection entitled Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders, edited and translated by S.D. Goitein, the great historian of Mediterranean Jewish societies. The book contains a letter written in 1148, from Aden, to Abraham Ben Yiju, a merchant living in Mangalore on the Malabar Coast of India. The letter contains greetings for Ben Yiju’s slave, a trusted commercial agent who travelled more than once to the Middle East on his master’s business. ‘The Slave of MS H.6’, as Ghosh provisionally calls him, is an elusive presence in an elaborate correspondence linking the Mediterranean, Fustat (Old Cairo) and South India. Closing Goitein’s collection, Ghosh felt an obscure permission to do fieldwork in Egypt: ‘I knew nothing then about the Slave of MS H.6 except that he had given me the right to be there, a sense of entitlement.’ The Third World anthropologist now conceives his research as extending a long history of intercultural relations, contacts not defined by European expansion or the dichotomy of East and West.

During a decade of fieldwork and writing, Ghosh combed the archives for traces of the Indian slave, his distant fellow traveller. The archives – records of everyday life in the 12th century – are a story in themselves. Goitein was the foremost compiler, translator and interpreter of the ‘Geniza Archive’, a record of medieval Jewish communities dispersed around the Mediterranean, with outposts in the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Ghosh retells the story of this collection, its preservation for nine centuries in the synagogue of Fustat, and its ‘discovery’ by European scholars in the late 19th century. ‘Geniza’ means ‘storeroom’, a place in medieval synagogues where the faithful deposited documents that might contain the name of God. These included virtually everything written at the time: wills, contracts, inventories, business and personal letters. Normally, such papers were collected for a time and then ritually buried, with due respect for God’s written traces. The Cairo Geniza remained miraculously intact from the tenth to the 19th century: a precious jumble including records of business, religion, government, law, travel and family life.

In the 1890s, the Geniza was ‘rescued’ by European scholars – a generous but decidedly imperial appropriation. A community that had preserved its documents for nine hundred years was summarily judged incompetent by the authorities, and the archive dispersed to distant libraries in places like Cambridge, St Petersburg and Philadelphia. As Ghosh traces ‘the Slave of MS H.6’, he follows also the diasporic career of the Cairo Geniza. In his account, these pieces of 12th-century paper, travellers across centuries, oceans and continents, have a marvellous presence – down to the feel of the thick, torn sheets, crowded with script.

The slave – later, after a research trip to his Indian homeland, Ghosh named him ‘Bomma’ – barely emerges. Given the nature of the archive, Abraham Ben Yiju’s story holds centre-stage. The merchant travels from Ifriqiya (now a town in Tunisia) to Fustat, to Aden, then to Mangalore. There he married a local woman, a slave who bore his children and whose manumission record survives in St Petersburg. He stayed twenty years on the Mal abar Coast, in a tolerant world of Arabs, Indians and Jews, finally returning to Egypt in a desperate attempt to reconnect his dispersed family. As Ghosh searched for his elusive South Asian alter ego, he discovered a network of extraordinary Arab and Jewish travellers, of syncretic cultural forms, of commerce in the fullest sense.

The documents themselves, written in Arabic with Hebrew characters, are an index of currently impossible contacts (Jews habitually invoke the name of God as ‘incha’ Allah’), a reminder of the long inter-cultural history of Levantine societies. Strange links to the present emerge. For example, the Judeo-Arabic of the Geniza texts is closer to the contemporary village speech Ghosh used in fieldwork than to a more refined urban Arabic. Laboriously deciphering them, he suddenly ‘hears’ his village friends. In an Antique Land braids together the 12th-century ‘Geniza world’ with late 20th-century village life. The two have in common a tolerance and reciprocity as well as a kind of vernacular ‘cosmopolitanism’ – connections to kin and to distant places on terms that transgress the all-or-nothing borders of nation-states and religions. These transgressions are Ghosh’s threads of hope in a planet increasingly menaced by sectarian violence.

Ghosh engages the Geniza world and its forgotten travellers from a South Asian perspective, haunted by the experience of Partition and communal bloodshed. Others reclaim it for a ‘Levantine’ counter-history. Amiel Alcalay’s recent After Arabs and Jews traces a long history of cultural interpenetrations, centuries of coexistence, when Islam and Judaism profoundly influenced each other and when Jews and Arabs shared urban loyalties, neighbourhoods, trading relations, languages, poetries, clothing and food. Alcalay’s Sephardic history, sharply focused as a reproach to the exclusivist Jewish state in Israel, draws extensively on Goitein. (The final volume of A Mediterranean Society, Goitein’s massive study in Jewish Diaspora history, is about to be published posthumously by the University of California Press.) In an essay quoted by Alcalay, Goitein writes:

As we know from Geniza documents coming from Fustat, Cairo, Alexandria, al-Mahalla and other places in Egypt, from Kairouan, Jerusalem, Damascus and Aleppo, Jewish houses often bordered on those of Muslims or Christians or both.

There was no ghetto, but, on the contrary, much opportunity for daily intercourse. Neither was there an occupational ghetto. I have counted so far about 360 occupations of Jews, of which 240 entailed some type of manual work. There was constant co-operation between the various religious groups to the point of partnerships in business and even in workshops. In order to assess correctly the admissibility of the Geniza records for general sociological research, we have to free ourselves entirely from familiar notions about European Jews.

Goitein’s interest in the ‘daily intercourse’ of communal life, nurtured through ethnographic work with the Arab Jews of Yemen, resonates with Ghosh’s portrayals of contemporary life in the Nile Delta, and beyond.

In an Antique Land records the forced and voluntary crossings of ordinary people, the inventive mixings of popular cultures, the human attachments made and, maintained across frontiers. One of the revelations of the Gulf War was the existence of a massive anonymous labour force in the region, drawn from all over the Middle East and Asia. Ghosh provides personalities for a few of these workers, village friends who abruptly leave home for Baghdad. We see the logic of their departures and returns, their stunning successes and sad failures. In an Antique Land gives agency and a long history to the travels of people who do not usually appear in the historical limelight – but did so for a brief moment late in 1990, pathetically stranded at the Jordanian border.

In weaving together his modern and medieval stories, Ghosh crosses the borders of ethnographic writing, particularly those shared with the novel and with travel literature. The villagers he portrays are not so much informants as characters. As a formal experiment, the book’s spatial and temporal overlays complicate the notion of a ‘field’ (and thus, ‘fieldwork’) almost beyond recognition. In an Antique Land recasts the conventional village study as a multiply-centred account of transnational relations.

The making and unmaking of ‘cultural’ difference is a central theme. Ghosh describes encounters between a more or less secular Indian intellectual and more or less pious Muslims. In exchanges that run the gamut from surreal comedy to chilling rage, a constant theme is the scandal of Hindu customs: reverence for cows, cremation of the dead, and non-circumcision. Ghosh, never permitted to take refuge in social-scientific neutrality, often finds himself cast as reluctant specimen of Hindu culture. His friend, the sardonic Khamees, baits him on the subject of cremation:

  ‘You mean that you put them on heaps of fire-
wood and just light them up?’
  ‘Yes,’ I said quickly, hoping he would tire of
the subject. It was not to be.
  ‘Why?’ he persisted. ‘Is there a shortage of
kindling in your country?’

When Ghosh tries to explain the rites and rituals, Khamees, joined now by his sister, Busnia, persists:

  ‘Even little children?’ said Khamees. ‘Do you
burm little children?’
  Busnia spoke now, for the first time. ‘Of course
not,’ she said in disbelief, hugging her baby to her
breast. ‘They wouldn’t burn little dead children –
no one could do that.’
  ‘Yes,’ I said, regretfully. ‘Yes, we do – we burn
everyone.’
  ‘But why?’ she cried. ‘Why? Are people fish
that you should fry them on a fire?’
  ‘I don’t know why,’ I said. ‘It’s the custom –
that’s how it was when I came into the world. I
had nothing to do with it.’

And so it continues, with the differences growing until India becomes a land where everything is ‘upside down’, where there’s no compulsory military service and where even the night-time has been abolished – to save money on lamps, suggests Khamees.

The conversation turns to an often-repeated story in which the visiting anthropologist, out in the fields studying agricultural techniques, falls down to worship a cow. But as soon as Ghosh exclaims over a new baby, Khamees cries out in delight: ‘The Indian knows. He understands that people are happy when they have children: he’s not as upside down as we thought.’ While the two cultures and religions keep their distance, the individuals caught up in these never quite frivolous debates learn to like each other. A mixture of incomprehension and complicity characterises fieldwork’s human encounters.

Islam is a complex ‘other’: sometimes a rigid counterpart, pinioning Ghosh as Hindu, sometimes a less absolute, more personal constellation. Ghosh provides clear portraits of Jabir, Ustaz Sabry and several other younger Egyptians whom the Western press might too quickly label ‘Islamic Fundamentalists’. One of the merits of In an Antique Land is its account of the Muslim religious revival in village settings. Here the brightest and most energetic advocates of progress reject the bankrupt paths offered by nationalism and Western development, in search of a third, Islamic way that is anything but reactionary or anti-modern. Islam, in Ghosh’s portrayal, is far from monolithic, and it offers many points of attraction for the Indian visitor, particularly in its local, unofficial forms.

Things did not always go well, however. Two of the book’s most dramatic scenes shatter the fragile structure of complicity built up with friends like Khamees. (The important connections are all – perhaps inevitably, given the constraints of fieldwork – with men.) At a marriage party the anthropologist’s fate as honoured guest is to be imprisoned indoors with the older men while all the interesting action, the dancing and fun, is outside. He tries to escape into the crowd, but is dragged back. As the frustrated ethnographer nears breaking point, the conversation turns inevitably to cow worship and cremation. Abruptly, a horrified voice wants to know whether he himself has been circumcised. Ghosh bolts. Stumbling home he is too upset to explain his flight to a concerned friend, Nabeel. But he tells us a harrowing tale of finding himself as a six-year-old holed up with a group of terrified Hindus during a religious riot in Dhaka. ‘The stories of those riots are always the same: tales that grow out of an explosive barrier of symbols – of cities going up in flames because of a cow found dead in a temple or a pig in a mosque; of people killed for wearing a lungi or a dhoti, depending on where they find themselves; of women disembowelled for wearing veils of vermilion, of men dismembered for the state of their foreskins.’ Could friends like Nabeel understand? Egypt, despite occasional turbulence was a far less violent society. ‘I could not expect them to understand an Indian’s terror of symbols.’

In another crucial scene, Ghosh’s vision of civility and negotiated difference is shattered by the discovery of having too much in common. An argument with the local Imam escalates beyond cows and cremation into a shouting match over whether India or Egypt is more ‘advanced’, possesses the best tanks and bombs (second only to ‘the West’). Ghosh feels defeated. He and the Imam can communicate only in a language of techno-military power and universal ‘development’. This is their only common ground. They are both displaced and ‘travelling in the West’. Abruptly Ghosh feels the

dissolution of the centuries of dialogue that had linked us; we had demonstrated the irreversible triumph of the language that has usurped all the others in which people once discussed their differences. We had acknowledged that it was no longer possible to speak, as Ben Yiju or his Slave, or any one of the thousands of travellers who had crossed the Indian Ocean in the Middle Ages might have done: of things that were right, or good, or willed by God: it would have been merely absurd for either of us to use those words, for they belonged to a dismantled rung on the ascending ladder of Development.

At moments like this, stunned and silenced, Ghosh felt himself ‘a witness to the extermination of a world of accommodations that I had believed to be still alive, and, in some tiny measure, still retrievable.’

The gloom that descends cannot be dispelled by all the small, saving human contacts. Khamees laughs off the talk about bombs and tanks, and even offers to visit Ghosh in his upside-down country, adding quickly: ‘But if I die there you must remember to bury me.’ Is everyone only travelling in the West? If so, what about Khamees’s offer to go East? And yet Khamees is a villager who never travels, who shuns the lures of migrancy. What, ultimately, is the significance of the loyalties and partial understandings, the ‘world of accommodations’ the 20th-century traveller sometimes manages to forge with his Egyptian hosts? At a personal level, they are crucial. When he is most despairing and confused, Ghosh has friends like Nabeel, to walk him home. And when Nabeel ends up lost in the mass of workers fleeing Baghdad after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the cluster of family in the Nile Delta searching for his face on a small TV (bought with money from Iraq) includes his friend from across the Indian Ocean. What is the continuing value of human contacts such as these?

Could there ever be a history, even a politics, of friendship? Of love? What made it possible for Ben Yiju to live happily for twenty years among Arabs, Jews and Indians in Mangalore, to marry a woman of profoundly different culture, to arrange a marriage between their mixed-blood daughter and the son of his brother in Sicily? Ghosh seems content simply to keep such stories of crossing alive, as imaginative resources rather than political models. The point of his exercise is not to romanticise the Geniza world, which saw its share of intolerance, including the Crusades. Ben Yiju’s struggle to re-connect his family at the end of his life was a response, in part, to brutal expulsions of Jewish communities in North Africa. The point of juxtaposing the 12th and late 20th centuries is not, ultimately, to write a tale of loss (though In an Antique Land has its elegiac moments). The goal is to make space for a counter-history of modernity.

In an Antique Land’s two worlds occupy opposite ends of a long history of globalisation, beginning with the age of ‘discovery’ and leading through mercantilism and imperialism to today’s transnational capitalism. Its 12th-century commercial networks evoke a historical vision in which Europe is not the necessary centre of a dynamic ‘world system’. A different international economy preceded the ‘Western’ version. And Ghosh’s exploration of a portion of that network, linking the Mediterranean with India, reverses a division of ‘West’ and ‘East’ that, for five hundred years, has rationalised European expansion. When Bomma, Abraham Ben Yiju, and so many others criss-crossed the Indian Ocean, the region that would later become ‘Europe’ was still peripheral to trading centres such as Fustat. The Geniza world offers a concrete vision of global relations based on a non-aligned cosmopolitanism.

In an Antique Land juxtaposes possibilities, without concluding. In a world which has always been interconnected but is now swept up and partitioned by ever more powerful techno-economic forces, how will people give shape to their communities? Will differences be negotiated through intricate relational networks or measured against rigid templates of development and nationhood? Ghosh’s pessimism of the intellect inclines him to the latter possibility, his optimism of the will keeps the former alive. His own book is evidence, perhaps, that the traditions of tolerance and diversity he celebrates can be reclaimed.